Who doesn’t like a day at the seaside and there’s nowhere more iconic location for that than Brighton. I first cycled there in 1996 as a sponsored participant in the British Heart Foundation’s annual London to Brighton charity ride and collected about £700 for my efforts. I repeated the ride again in 1996 and 1997, by which time I was running out of interest and also finding some of the other +40,000 other riders a little too enthusiastic for safety; it is a sobering thought that each year people were actually getting killed, usually as a result of reckless behaviour! Notwithstanding, it was a fun event and as I practically live on the route, from time-to-time I have occasionally still join the ride as it passes through my home patch each year.
Living on the southern outskirts of London, just outside the M25 motorway below the North Downs hills, I rarely cycle northwards – it’s just too busy, built-up and hard work – preferring instead cycle rides that head East, West or South. Having developed numerous circular routes of up to 60 miles from home and with greater fitness, it soon became necessary to look further afield and where better than Brighton?
Hard riding to Brighton
Early 20th century transport to Brighton
The obvious route is to follow the direction of the aforesaid London to Brighton charity ride but I rejected this because (a) it replicates much of my cycle route to Newhaven and other similar rides, and (b) it requires climbing the South Downs by way of the notoriously hard Ditchling Beacon – well why make life difficult? Like the annual historic car rally and other similar events, there is a more direct route along and around the A23 but this is not particular pleasant being itself routinely very busy with traffic. As a result I have instead developed a very enjoyable ride that takes a more westerly route and combines good scenery, quite roads and takes advantage of a natural gap though the South Downs.
Click for route details here
The first 11 miles is familiar territory for me passing just east of Gatwick Airport via the villages of Leigh and Newdigate to Rusper, which surprisingly marks the highest point on the entire route. In contrast to East Sussex the West Sussex section across the Weald though lumpy in parts is not as high as in the east and, as previously indicated, a break in the South Downs conveniently provides much easier cycling across this otherwise significant obstacle. After Rusper it’s a well-earned coast downhill and around the eastern outskirts of Horsham, before crossing the bucolic countryside of the central Weald all the way to Partridge Green. On a sunny day this really is a treat on a bike – gently rolling, open fields interspersed with woodland, dotted along the way with attractive Wealden style buildings, often encountering horse riders ambling along the lanes or sometimes even a coach and horses – truly England at its very best.
Though continuing through countryside and not unpleasant, the A 2135 south of Partridge Green is not particularly noteworthy and a little busier. At the end it is necessary to carefully navigate a short left-hand dog-leg across the busy A283 before riding into Steyning. Situated on the lower slopes of the South Downs, Steyning is an attractive small country town, which in itself is interesting and provides many opportunities for a refreshment stop if required.
Just outside the town centre the ride turns to join the valley of the River Adur, which usefully cuts directly through the Downs. Careful navigation is required to locate Maudlin Lane on the right, a small country road to Botolph and Coombes which are not signed. Thereafter the road runs along the eastern foothills of the Down’s gap, with attractive views overlooking the river to the east and beyond to the Downs on the other side of the valley. There are still some steep but thankfully very short hills, which are nonetheless much better than going over the top elsewhere; on a suitable bike it is also possible to take a track that runs along the riverbank but do not take the main A283 road which here is very busy with heavy and fast moving traffic.
At the end of this section it is necessary to carefully navigate another dog-leg across the very busy A27 Shoreham Bypass road, turning right then immediately thereafter left onto the Old Shoreham Road; thankfully with patience and the convenience of traffic lights this is not too difficult. For motorists this road goes nowhere, apart from vehicle access to a few commercial buildings, for pedestrians and cyclists it’s a different matter. This is what’s left of the old, original coast road and just ahead is the magnificent Grade-II listed Shoreham Tollbridge crossing the River Adur.
Shoreham Tollbridge opened in 1782 (South Downs in the background)
Opened in 1782, the bridge is built entirely of wood and can now only be used by pedestrians and cyclists but is well worth the detour to experience. Apart from its antiquity, at this point the river is tidal and depending on the state of the tide, provides wonderful views along the river towards the sea. Immediately after crossing the bridge turn right onto a mostly paved track that runs along the eastern riverbank and into the coastal town of Shoreham; the provision of benches and tables along this section provides an attractive refreshment stop overlooking the river.
A short detour on the small backroads into Old Shoreham is very worthwhile. Dating back to pre-Roman / Anglo Saxon times, the area has a very interesting character and some fascinating very old churches and other buildings; probably the best snack stop on the route is at Teddy’s Tearooms on East Street – the quality and size of the cake portions is without parallel in my experience! Thereafter, it’s necessary to take the busy A259 coastal road all the way into Brighton but there are compensations, with frequent sea views on the right. Initially the road passes Shoreham harbour itself is a busy, before eventually rolling into the western outskirts of Hove.
On reaching the end of Hove Lawns swing right off the main road and onto the cycle path that now runs all the way to Brighton Pier; if the main road is too busy it is possible to join the cycle path further west. Given the nature of Brighton it is no surprise that this cycle path is very busy and care needs to be taken with other users and pedestrians, who share the space with cyclists. The dominant features along the front at Brighton & Hove are of course the beach / sea to the right and to the left the attractive architecture. The Regency buildings, crescents and squares that dominate this section of the ride are truly magnificent and worth stopping to view. Unfortunately despite today’s strict planning controls, over time numerous modern buildings have also appeared, some of which are a complete eyesore – I presume these were bomb damaged sites left after WWII and subsequently redeveloped in an era when planning was less strict?
View east from the top
The main stretch of Brighton promenade starts at the now derelict West Pier. For years much pressure was brought to bear upon the authorities to rebuild this Regency pier but without success. Notwithstanding, located at the landward end of the pier stands the 531ft British Airways i360 tower opened in 2016. This imposing structure with its 21st century viewing pod that runs up and down the tower now dominates the area and despite my original scepticism, on a clear day provides a magnificent view of Brighton and the coast beyond and is also quite fun to ride. As a result the i360 has already become a very popular attraction and is sure to increase visitors to this part of Brighton in the future.
Finally, the ride naturally finishes in front of the still standing and very popular Brighton Palace Pier (image at the top of the page). An alternative and interesting route for the last quarter mile is along the beach itself. Bikes can be taken down large Victorian ramps to a walkway that runs along the beach edge but will need to be wheeled along the boardwalk rather than riding – it is nonetheless very pleasant and provides many eating and drinking venues, as well as some very active night clubs should you arrive after midnight! If the weather is good a swim in the sea is obligatory to freshen up + an ice cream nearby afterwards.
Before heading back either cycling or by rail from the beautiful Victorian station, the town itself is also well worth a visit. Most famous are The Lanes and the Royal Pavilion but the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is a spectacular building that epitomises the very best architecture from the Victorian era. Alternatively a spin along Madeira Drive to the east of the Palace Pier and perhaps on to Brighton Marina is also worthwhile. All-in-all this is a very enjoyable 41-mile ride which could easily be extended to start from within London if necessary. Notwithstanding, on this occasion it is about the destination and not (so such) the journey. Brighton is a truly exciting end for a bike ride – just make sure there’s enough time and energy left to enjoy it.